In the past few weeks of protests, raised fists have been a powerful symbol of the strength and passion of the Black Lives Matter struggle for racial justice.
The origins of the raised fist
The raised fist has been used throughout history, and it became a symbol of the struggle for racial justice in the U.S. back in the 1960’s. In a forever famous moment, Olympic winner Tommie Smith raised his fist as he was on the podium receiving his gold medal in 1968. This gesture, referred to as the Black Power salute, caused immediate condemnation by a large number of Americans, and expulsion from the Olympics. Comments such as this in Time Magazine were typical: ‘Faster, Higher, Stronger’ is the motto of the Olympic Games. ‘Angrier, nastier, uglier’ better describes the scene in Mexico City last week.
We heard Tommie Smith speak at American University two years ago, 50 years after the event, and his speech was so incredibly moving. He explained that his raised fist, which caused so much societal anger at the time, was born out of pain. He described his childhood picking cotton in East Texas and the extreme poverty, and said that he felt powerless to help most people but thought that this gesture on the Olympic stage might make kids like him feel “less sad.”
If you were living in D.C. in 2014, you may have seen a massive sculpture commemorating Tommie Smith’s salute which was on display at one of the old Navy Yard buildings for a few months. Artist Glenn Kaino cast the arm of Tommie Smith in the Black Power salute, and created a 100-foot long sculpture out of multiple gold-covered replicas.
So as we continue to see raised fists during the protests, we realize that it has such a rich history of combining pain and anger and bravery and societal backlash. And that as a society, we are only beginning to understand the vast trauma of racial injustice, as witness the parallels to the initial condemnation of Colin Kapernick taking a knee at NFL games.